My dad's hit for Elvis proves the power of small bets
My dad used to have a mint condition, signal flare red 1966 Mustang convertible.
The top was down at all times unless there was a downpour. In most rain, he’d insist on picking up the speed until the windshield would block most of the drops before they reached us. Cold complaints were answered with the sleeping bag I kept on the back seat, over the piles of newspaper scraps.
Those newspapers weren’t trash. They contained potential gold, and that’s why they were held securely in place by coffee mugs.
You see, my dad is a creator. My favorite creator.
He’s the one that showed me what it took to make a living creating, that it was even possible, and what it could mean for your lifestyle if you could make it work.
Those newspaper margins were scribbled with song title ideas he’d get while driving. Sometimes it was something that was said in the car or on the radio, or something that he read on a billboard. Other times, it was just something that came to him.
Periodically he’d be forced to sift through those piles of ideas. Most of those titles would never turn into songs, but some would. Of those resulting songs, many would never make it beyond our kitchen table, but some would end up on the radio.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m a big proponent of the small bets approach to making money as a creator, and songwriting is the perfect example of small bets at work.
My dad probably wrote thousands of songs, and made money from a tiny percentage of those.
Yet over the course of his career, he wrote songs that were made hits by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Reba McEntire, and more.
He had songs in movies.
He had songs adapted for TV commercials.
In addition to songs, he wrote In a Charmed Life, a Road Less Traveled for the Modern Love column of The New York Times, about the car accident my Mom and I were in when I was 15 that left her paralyzed from the chest down. (She was a marathon runner, and proceeded to “roll” multiple marathons after the accident. Yeah, she’s amazing too, but that’s another story.)
He then wrote a memoir, Permission to Fly.
And those are just the things that come directly to mind.
He never stopped generating ideas, because he needed them. In a sense, making a living songwriting - and in many other forms of creating - is a numbers game.
His song Way Down was recorded by Elvis and was #1 on the American Country chart the week Elvis died.
It’s a damn good song, but that’s not the reason it became a hit. Good songs didn’t just “get recorded” by Elvis. We tend to think, as creators, our success or failure is within our control, but only a portion of it is. There are tons of variables, and this is why small bets, and diversification, wins. My dad - and every successful songwriter - knows this.
Diversification is why the average startup investor makes significantly more money than the average startup founder.
While $100M Offers is currently the first book I recommend to creators, I don’t agree with Hormozi’s advice to stick with one thing until you’re making at least a million dollars a year on it.
My dad knew there were so many factors at play when it came to getting a hit record, and that the title, and quality of the song were just a couple variables of many.
Even when a song had momentum, things could “change on a dime” as he would always say.
We saw that all too clearly in 1995 when his song I Was Blown Away (about a girl) was abruptly pulled from all radio airplay after the Oklahoma City Bombing happened, right as it was rising in the charts. That was the end of that.
We need to keep trying things and let probability do its work.
Here’s a clip of him from a recent podcast interview talking about how Elvis ended up recording his song, Way Down:
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